Why Should the Devil Have All of the Good Music?: The Meaning of the 1970’s Jesus Revolution

In the 1960’s and into the 70’s with the Vietnam War, the sexual revolution, women’s liberation, the rise of the drug culture, the Jesus People arose as a Christian reaction to the cultural revolution. Time Magazine, in 1971, called it the Jesus Revolution – considered the latest of the great western revivals. For many, like myself, there was something ephemeral about it all – yes, it included those of us who had come through the drug culture but was it an extension of the established church? Was it simply “youth culture meets the church” or were we breaking down denominational barriers and actually changing traditional forms of church? I did not understand all of the forces while they were happening but 40 years provides perspective.

A group of us had begun to live and worship together and we were trying to make our way through the confusing maze of denominations and the charismatic movement and the issue of the gifts of the Spirit. Several of us went to see the Franco Zeffirelli film Brother Sun, Sister Moon, which captured for us and, I would find out, for many others the spirit of the time. I had started a Christian coffee house and toured in a combination singing/drama group employing the music and drama of Maranatha Publishing started by Chuck Smith, a key figure in the Jesus People Movement. Yet, like the cultural revolution of the 60’s which seemed to have no clear direction or meaning, the Jesus People Movement was amorphous. What did it all mean or what has it come to mean?

The trajectory of Larry Norman, considered the father of contemporary Christian music, the innovator who fused Rock with Christian music (reverse engineering as he pointed out), in whose living room the Vineyard Movement began, illustrates the innovation, failures, and perhaps, hints at what it will yet come to mean. His signature anthem, “Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music,” captures the clash of cultures (between Church and the cultural revolution) and the excitement of the times. Now its quaint datedness indicates the distance traveled (still with the question of “where?”).

At some point several of us went to the local community college to hear Norman – not to sing or play but just to speak. Since it was not a concert there were only a few of us in the room and, though Norman, with his long blond hair and California cool, looked the part of a rock star the conversation was reflective. He had been the opening act for Janis Joplin, who by this time was already 4 years dead, but for whom Norman had written one of his most poignant songs:

Sipping whiskey from a paper cup
You drown your sorrows till you can’t stand up
Take a look at what you’ve done to yourself
Why don’t you put the bottle back on the shelf
Yellow fingers from your cigarettes
Your hands are shaking while your body sweats
Why don’t you look into Jesus, He’s got the answer
Gonorrhea on Valentines Day
And you’re still looking for the perfect lay
You think rock and roll will set you free
You’ll be deaf before your thirty three
Shooting junk till your half insane
Broken needle in your purple vein

The lyrics pose the problem which Norman would face his entire career: this is not church music and it is too bluntly Christian for a secular audience. Paul McCartney indicated that if he would drop the God stuff he could be a rock star. Billy Graham told him he might make his lyrics a bit subtler.

Norman, biographer Gregory Thornbury writes, eventually took the advice to heart as he told the audience at London’s Royal Hall: “Tonight’s a really important night for me, because I have something to say publicly that I’ve been thinking about for a long time. This will be the last concert that I will be giving of this kind.”[1] He said he had never wanted to just play to exclusively Christian audiences or to make money off of Jesus. He explained that he is no evangelist but just a singer. He then declared his break up with the Jesus Movement by singing, “I’ve Got to Learn to Live without You.”

His next album, So Long Ago the Garden, was so subtle that his fan base assumed he had given up the faith. The album contained no explicit Christian reference and was no “tract” but simply music by a Christian – which Norman presumed qualified it as Christian music: “If people draw hope and comfort from my songs, fine. But I’m not out to convert anyone. My art is not propaganda.” The problem was that he also alienated his Christian fan base with the new style, captured in the cover art (a naked Larry) on the album (which alone caused many to presume he was now backslidden).

In frustration, and feeling stuck between the demands of Church and culture he wrote to the theologian/missionary Francis Schaeffer. Schaeffer was sympathetic:

“I understand the walls that have to be smashed and that sometimes it is a lonely walk. … I feel we have a double responsibility. We must say that Christ is the Lord of the whole world and therefore we do not have to make everything into a tract, and yet looking at the wounded world we do have a responsibility, that each of us is a ‘teller’ in our own place.”

Norman came to see his role, much like that of Schaeffer himself, as one who would develop and deepen Christian self-consciousness.

Norman’s next album, In Another Land, was the product of a long period of gestation in which he came to see his role as challenging the Church to be fully Christian: “God gave me a gift, not to be popular, but to be invasive.” The back cover with a picture of a homeless man got at Norman’s goal for the album and for Christian Rock, to move Christians to active engagement with real world problems. As Thornbury explains, “Larry Norman wanted to restructure the Christian cultural consciousness, moving it away from theologizing and position-taking and into deeper engagement with contemporary daily life.”[2]

By the 1980’s Norman’s personal and professional life began to fall apart as he and his wife and he and his professional associates went through a literal and metaphorical divorce. He had succeeded musically and yet his own success seemed to mark the failure of his ultimate goal. Perhaps his own success and the success of Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority constituted very different strains of Christianity, but his effort to fuse church and culture was now rendered redundant in many ways. As Thornbury puts it, “Imagine learning your team won, but through a process that rendered them unrecognizable.”[3] 

It is not clear Norman would recognize his musical offspring. Contemporary Christian music is a multi-million-dollar industry, though Norman had claimed to never make money off of Jesus (and his relative failure is perhaps testimony to this truth). The Gospel Music Association inducted Norman into their Hall of Fame noting: his music “exemplified the goals, ideals, and standards of everything the original architects of contemporary Christian music intended it to be.” As Thornbury concludes, “Oh, the irony! The Christian music industry was honoring Larry Norman for helping to give them standards? He must have felt like a failure.”[4]

Norman had always had an uneasy relationship with the organized church and the last phase of his career, with the album Stranded in Babylon, reiterated his dis-ease with American evangelicalism.

Where the local church is closed except a couple times a week
And turns its face from all the homeless in the street
This is America, land of the free
Everyone gets justice and liberty, if you got the money

Step into the madness as a thousand points of light
Illuminate the warheads for the final fight
Step into the madness, say your prayers and drink your tea
Get ready for a kinder, gentler world war three

This is America, land of the free
Everyone gets justice and liberty, if you got the money

He ends his relationship with the established Church much as he started. When asked if we should be committed to Church he answers: “Are we including the apostate Church in this? Commitment to any church for the sake of commitment to a religious structure? We must first be committed to God.” He concludes that “Western-world religious look-alike cults,” by definition, do not have Christ at the center.[5]

The Jesus Movement has faded, the look-alike cult prevails, but a few Jesus Freaks, at least, feel stranded in this Babylon.

[1] Gregory Alan Thornbury, Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?: Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock (p. 130). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[2] Thornbury, 212.

[3] Thornbury, 264.

[4] Thornbury, 282.

[5] Don Gillespie, “Interview with Larry Norman,” New Music Magazine (January– July 1980), reproduced online at Larry Norman UK, accessed April 28, 2017, http:// www.larrynorman.uk.com/ ​ word24. htm.

 

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

2 thoughts on “Why Should the Devil Have All of the Good Music?: The Meaning of the 1970’s Jesus Revolution”

  1. In my role as the Executive Director of the Janesville Community Center I have had many Christians question our official stance of not being overtly Christian. Yet I have had some opportunities to share Christ with people I would not have met, therefore, not having that chance, without my involvement in the community center.

    1. The quality of Larry Norman’s music put him into orbit with many of the celebrities of his day and he used this to share Christ. He began his career and gained success in a secular band – reversing the usual sequence – and then used this as a stepping stone into promoting a new brand of Christian music. As with Schaeffer’s advice – the point is to be a witness where we are and not make everything into a tract.